Let's Talk About It: Reading as EscapeJune 03, 2015
Last month, I shared a post about how the homeless often get short-changed when it comes to accessing resources (books, computers, etc.) at public libraries. I was inspired by a piece by Kelly Jensen over at Book Riot about how an initiative to get free e-books into children's hands is ignoring a significant segment of the population—namely, the poor and/or those without Internet access.
I was surprised and delighted to find out from some commenters that there are libraries out there that do offer services to homeless patrons, and I also learned a little more about the various legal and fiscal roadblocks libraries can run into when they attempt to create lending systems and programming for underprivileged populations (e.g., less accountability for missing materials, resource licensing, and more). I know that policies and programs vary widely by state (and probably even county), and I really appreciated everyone who took the time to weigh in!
Still, there's another aspect to this issue that I can't stop thinking about, and I think it's best summarized by a quotation from the American Library Association's toolkit about how to provide better library services to the homeless and poor. The toolkit quotes Sassafras Lowrey—author of Kicked Out, an anthology that compiles the voices of currently and formerly homeless LGBTQ youth—about what the library can mean to the young and displaced:
“I needed a book about how to live through this more than I needed to know I had somewhere to stay, to know I had a way to get to school or to know what I would have for dinner. I needed a book to prove to me that survival was possible.”—pg. 4, Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library EngagementWhen you're homeless, you often aren't having your basic needs met; the hundreds of calls I fielded during my internship at a homeless hotline made this obvious. Seeking out food and shelter is important, of course, but when your homelessness is chronic, you need pockets of time spent doing things other than surviving.
I think a recent photo set from National Geographic perfectly captures this sentiment. The magazine published a series of portraits by Fritz Hoffman of homeless library patrons reading in libraries throughout the state of California. Some of them are reading to learn; maybe what they learn will be directly applied to improving their situation (i.e., finding steady employment), but many of them are diving into fiction, lighter non-fiction, and religious texts. They're doing what so many of us do on the weekend or after a long day: they're diving into a good book and losing themselves in it.
While I was never homeless as a child, I was more than once displaced. After my parents separated when I was 14, my mother and I got evicted from our new apartment. We spent months sharing a makeshift bed in the living room of my best friend's home, and after her (my best friend's) parents separated as well, all of us (my best friend, our two moms and I) rented a house together so she and I could finish out our junior and senior years of high school. Even before my parents split up, I was dealing daily with substance abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, and chronic depression in my household.
Throughout it all, books were my sanctuary, my lifeline, the places I could escape into (Hogwarts, Constance Billard School for Girls, the "territories" of the Travelers) and have the chaos around me melt away. Sometimes I even dove into bookish chaos (à la Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis) because it was more manageable than my own. I could always shelve the book in a way I couldn't shelve my reality.
I do not mean to fish for pity or to say I've had the hardest childhood in history, but these are the facts. I know what I went through, and I know what helped me endure it. It can be easy to dismiss books as a luxury that the homeless, poor or otherwise struggling wouldn't be able to take advantage of anyway—with all that surviving to do, who has the time?
But everyone should be given the opportunity to do more than just survive.
Have you ever used books to escape a particularly hard time or situation?